19 February 2013

Bessarion's Little White Dog

St. Augustine, Carpaccio, ca. 1504

In Carpaccio's painting of St. Augustine, at the instant when he becomes aware of the death of St. Jerome, there is a small fluffy white dog. This dog, too, has become suddenly alert at the sudden stream of light from the upper right. It is a wonderful room, books piled on books, a wooden platform to keep feet from the cold floor, books along the wall, another room of treasures, his clerical effects untidily lying around the altar, a shelf of Greek antiquities to emphasize the Greek connection, and a bear-paw sconce for a light like the sconces in Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête.

Although Cardinal Bessarion had been dead for thirty years (1472), Augustine and his room are based on Bessarion's life (I like to think my own study reflects Bessarion and Augustine), and Carpaccio shows, among Bessarion's collection of astronomical instruments, the astrolabe made for him in 1462 by Regiomontanus.    This astrolabe still exists. He had met Regiomontanus in Vienna the year before, when he was travelling on behalf of the Papacy looking for support for a crusade in Greece against the Turks. Regiomontanus left Vienna with Bessarion and spent several years in his household, collecting and copying scientific manuscripts.

As far as I know, there is no mention of a little white dog in any Bessarion material, but I have always been charmed by the dog, and so imagine my delight when I discovered another little white dog in this Ptolemy manuscript made for Bessarion's collection.

The dog seems to be perched in Bessarion's cathedra, adjacent to his studiolo with Venetian ornamentation, and with that studiolo we come back to St. Jerome who was the Renaissance prototype for the scholar in his studiolo.  

Portrait of Ptolemy, Geography, c. 1453.
Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Cod. Gr. Z. 388 (=333)f. 6v

This picture should be quite large when downloaded, which you will need to do if you are to see all the wonderful details in it, including that astrolabe again. This one, too, has a stream of light from the upper right, illuminating the mind of Bessarion who is shown as a magos, a wise man who studies the stars, as did his teacher, George Gemistos Plethon. He also has all those untidy piles of books -- look at that wonderful large illustrated codex, and platforms to keep his feet from the chill.  Bessarion -- or Ptolemy -- is wearing a crown, which associates him with the "wise men from the East," the Magi who became kings in Western art.

Now about the dog.  I read some years back that wise men, magoi, were represented with white dogs, as wise women (who of course must have been witches) were supposed to have black cats. (I should admit here that a preliminary sketch by Carpaccio shows a beardless man with a rather nasty-looking cat, instead of a dog.) This dog-cat assignment sounded quite reasonable, but it occurred to me recently that these are the only two images I have seen of wise men with white dogs.  Most of the Jerome images give him a cat, possibly because of his lion.  So I don't really know if magoi have dogs, and would be delighted if any readers could produce more images.  Nor do I know if Bessarion actually owned a white dog, or any dog.  He probably did.  Bessarion was always adding people to his household who needed help in some way or another, and surely local dogs would have noticed that.
So if any reader should come across a line in a 15th-century source that mentions a white dog in Bessarion's household, or any dog,  I would be particularly delighted to know about it.

One more comment about the manuscript painting: ranged along the top are several fantastical towers.  I think the painter was aware of Pisanello's Verona fresco (ca. 1436-38) with the towers of Trebizond in the upper register.  He was probably also aware that Bessarion came from Trebizond, and that Regiomontanus had just been working on a Ptolomy manuscript from Trebizond. 

And for information about one of my favorite novels, The Towers of Trebizond, go here.   


  1. Hallo.
    There is this article about dogs in renaissance art. I don't know if its helpful, but there it is.
    Gregory Manopoulos

  2. It doesn't help with this particular problem, but it is a very interesting article & I have ordered the book it comes from. Thank you.

  3. This is a bit late, but I thought that I could help with the little white dog--Patricia Fortini Brown has an article about its representation and possible meaning(s) in Carpaccio's St Augustine (who may or may not be a portrait of Bessarion): https://www.academia.edu/817422/Carpaccios_St._Augustine_in_His_Study_A_Portrait_within_a_Portrait


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